What a pleasure it is to let the mind wander this weekend to form bookish associations in the monthly Six Degrees of Separation meme, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with an Australian classic (has it really been that long?): True Historyof the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. I read it when it first came out and I remember I found it pretty hard going (the vernacular, the lack of punctuation, the toxic masculinity and violence), but it would be too easy to make my first link another novel I struggled with (there are too many!). So instead, I will refer to the fact that it took a long time – nearly twenty years – for the book to be adapted for film (I haven’t watched the film yet but hear it’s quite impressive). So what other book took ages before it was adapted?
Well, there is a notorious one, which is still under development and seems to have been for the past 2-3 years, although it is labelled a TV mini-series: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, which was published in the same year as Peter Carey’s novel above. So twenty-two years and counting…
A simple connection for the next one – the word ‘clay’ in the title – and the long-awaited novel Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak. After the huge international success of his Book Thief, everyone was waiting with bated breath for his next move… and it took him nearly 12 years to complete it. In an interview, he said something like: ‘I’m a completely different person than the person who wrote The Book Thief but also a different person to the one who started Bridge of Clay 8-9 years ago … If I don’t get it done soon, I’ll probably have to set it aside.’ Wise words of advice to me as a budding novelist, I think!
Bridge of Clay features five brothers in Australia, but the most famous ‘band of brothers’ are the Dostoevsky’s Karamazovs in Tsarist Russia. Pleasure and duty, rationality and faith, free will versus fate, everything is up for discussion in this story of family ties gone very wrong. It also features a lengthy trial scene, and this is the link to my next book.
In L’Étranger by Albert Camus we have a courtroom scene where the accused Meursault refuses to conform to expectations, justify his actions or show remorse. A cold, clinical look at crime and punishment which is in marked contrast to Dostoevsky – Meursault is a man alienated from society and from himself.
Of course, I cannot mention the Camus novel without thinking of the very powerful response to it, the much more recent Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (translated by John Cullen in 2015), a retelling of the story from the point of view of the brother of the Arab victim who didn’t even have a name in the Camus novel.
This retelling of a famous story from the point of view of what one might call a ‘secondary character’ is what brings me to the final link in this chain: the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard is probably one of my favourite examples of witty, sophisticated and successful retellings of a classic (in this case, Hamlet). I don’t think I’ve ever read the script, but I’ve seen it performed several times and always come away with something new to marvel at.
I’ve just realised that my chain has been all male writers this month – and I wonder if my subconscious reverted to this because of the outlaw and masculinity issues arising from the starting point book. Next month the starting point is another Australian writer, but a woman, Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, which sounds much more like my kind of thing and which I might even read by June.
I thought I had the perfect excuse for justifying the vast amount of books that recently joined my household: it’s two months’ worth of incomings. But actually, it’s more like 6 weeks. Time to hit the pause button, I think, especially with the cost of everything going up so much and me contemplating a more part-time role (i.e. lower pay) so that I have more time to write, translate and promote Corylus. In the meantime, however, it’s been inspiration (or greed) galore. And, if I’m honest, book addiction is my way of escaping from all the anxiety that the current news cycle provokes in me.
I’m naming the culprits here (my daily walks while listening to podcasts are proving terribly injurious to my bank balance):
Backlisted Pod: for O Caledonia (mentioned in passing) and Stephen Sondheim (a full episode)
Slightly Foxed for Red Comet (full episode with biographer), although I vowed I had enough books about and by Sylvia Plath
Late to It for Hilma Wolitzer (although not this particular book) and Kirsty Gunn’s Infidelities
Book reviews by favourite bloggers such as Jacqui and Susana (who read it in the original Portuguese of course) and in Asymptote Journal for Empty Wardrobes
Dorian Stuber and his guest Niccie Panetta for the 2021 books of the year round-up which included Blue Remembered Hills and Olga Zilbergourg for mentioning The Man Between about legendary translator Michael Henry Heim.
Someone at Penguin Classics heard my boisterous declarations of love for Mishima’s work, for which I am profoundly grateful. Meanwhile, Clare O’Dea is a Switzerland-based expat writer whom I briefly encountered at Geneva Writers Group and she asked her publisher to send me this fictional account of the very recent (1959) Swiss referendum about women’s suffrage. Finally, I’d been a keen reader of Daniel Hahn’s diary of translating Damiela Elit’s Never Did the Fire for Charco Press, and commented on some of his blog posts, so was kindly sent a copy of the final diary published in book form.
I have several books of poetry and prose by my friend and fellow Romanian writer who writes in English, Carmen Bugan, but realised that I did not have this collected version of her poems. I had been covetously eyeing Hannah Lowe’s The Kids and finally got the nudge to buy it after it won the Costa Award. I can’t remember exactly whom I had a conversation with on Twitter about the Bloomsbury Group, but I thought it was high time I read Angelica Garnett’s memoir, which puts them all in a less golden light. Meander Spiral Explode has been recommended to me for its exploration of the writing craft for those who are no longer content with the Three Act or linear structure. Finally, for our London Reads the World Book Club in March, we will be reading a Romanian book at last and it’s one of my favourite writers, Mihail Sebastian. I thought it might be helpful to have the English translation to hand, rather than rely solely on the Romanian version I have, and I might end up having OPINIONS about the translation.
I’ve heard so many good things about this memoir of living with disability A Still Life, shortlisted for the Barbellion Prize, and I’ve been on the waiting list for it at the library for ages. When I finally went to pick up my reservation, I came across this collection of short stories by Dostoevsky and I’ve never been able to ignore anything by him, even when he infuriates me.
I happened to be in the lovely Marlow Bookshop in real life, and was intrigued about Gail Simmons’ journey across the Chiltern Hills, which recreates Robert Louis Stevenson’s three-day journey across the same landscape nearly 150 years earlier. With HS2 speed railway threatening to destroy this landscape forever, it’s an attempt to capture a place and time before it disappears. I also picked up a British Library anthology there, because crime fiction and books are an irresistible combination. The quest to diversity my bookcase continues with the academic study of London as a migrant city, a science-fiction take on office life by Chinese American author Ling Ma, and two crime novels by Adam Macqueen introducing Tommy Wildeblood, rent boy turned sleuth, against a backdrop of London’s recent history (1970s-80s).
Communist dictatorships in the former East Bloc countries and the United Nations (or other international organisations) are very triggering for me: in other words, as soon as I see or hear something about these topics, my online buying finger gets activated. The Stasi Poetry Circle is the true story of an attempt to set up a ‘propaganda poetry writing group’ in the German Democratic Republic. As for Romain Gary’s book: as I mentioned in the blog post about Frank Moorhouse’s book, it is a satire about the United Nations (thank you, Emma, for first drawing my attention to it), which Gary initially published under a pseudonym. I managed to find it second-hand on a French website and it got here relatively quickly.
Last, but not least, an online conversation with the same Emma as above, following her brilliant review of the Marseille Trilogy reminded me how much I love Jean-Claude Izzo and how difficult his books are to find over here. But lo and behold, a quick online search produced these two at reasonable prices. They’re both set mainly in Marseille too.
This is not a review of one of the best-known books in the literary canon. Instead, it’s my reaction to it, how I finally tamed the monster.
We all have at least one of the great classics lurking in our subconscious, taunting us with its impregnable unread status. My Achilles heel has been The Brothers Karamazov and I considered myself beaten after abandoning it no less than five times in three decades. It wasn’t even that I didn’t like Dostoevsky – he is, in fact, one of my favourite Russian authors and I lapped up all of his other work, even the gloomiest ones. Nor was it the length that put me off. I managed to get through Remembrance of Things Past (where far less exciting stuff happens) and War and Peace (although the war scenes did not enthrall me) relatively unscathed, while Genji Monogatari is one of my favourite books of all time.
So it was with some trepidation that I picked it up in December to read straight after the hugely enjoyable Sakhalin Island by Chekhov. To my astonishment, I not only managed to finish it in less than a month, but I actually enjoyed it this time! What made it different this time? Here are some top tips for vanquishing the beast (some of them tongue-in-cheek, some of them perfectly serious).
Clear your schedule:
I knew I had the Christmas holidays coming up, and that I wasn’t likely to go anywhere very soon, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to lie in bed for an hour or two in the morning and another couple of hours in the evening. I’d often find myself gravitating towards it during the day as well for a few pages.
Pick a good translation:
I had tried reading the book in Romanian, German and English translations, but none of them stuck. This one by Ignat Avsey (Oxford University Press World’s Classics) felt very fresh natural, really conveyed the feel of the spoken language of rural Russia, without sounding old-fashioned or ‘too exotic’.
Alternate with lighter reads:
When the going got tough, when bad news was forthcoming and I just couldn’t stomach any more Russian gloom and drama, I would switch to something lighter and more escapist, for example crime fiction like Ruth Ware’s skiing holiday from hell One by One, or John le Carre’s A Murder of Quality or the cosier puzzle mystery of The Marlow Murder Club by Robert Thorogood. I also watched plenty of lighter films over the holidays, and they too helped to lift the mood.
Skim read the bits that bore you rigid:
This will not be a popular piece of advice with the purists, but it’s what got me through. Classic though he is, Dostoevsky does tend to go on and on upon the slightest provocation. Alyosha and Ivan go to a tavern together and Ivan launches into several chapters’ worth of lengthy explanations about his world view and doubts and metaphorical tales. It sometimes feels like every single character has far too much of a back story, and that the unnamed narrator has to share all the gossip. As for the scenes in the monastery – that’s where I abandoned the book in the past. Father Zosima’s life and sayings were just a step too far for me – especially since he then disappears from the book without too much of an impact on the actions of any of the other characters (other than Alyosha). Even the sub-plot with the schoolboys befriended by Alyosha was not really all that necessary to the main story, although I personally quite liked it.
So yes, Dostoevsky tries to bring pretty much everything into this story: all of human philosophy, faith, psychology, as well as a good deal of discussion about the unique Russian traits (if those exist). At times it is simply too much, and he could have done with a good editor, but if you find some bits less enthralling than the others, read them a bit diagonally instead of giving up, because there will be plenty of good bits to follow.
Make notes as you go along:
I half-filled the book with post-it flags. There were so many interesting quotes and paragraphs that I wanted to reread, to remember, to return to. Perhaps, with so much currently going on in the news, and so much anger and sadness at the state of the world, the quotes that particularly struck me were the ones that seemed to show that human nature has not really changed over the years and has certainly not kept pace with any technological improvements.
Everyone says they hate wickedness but deep down they all love it.
Miracles never bother a realist. A true realist, if he is a non-believer, will always find within himself the strength and the ability not to believe in miracles. And if he believes, it’s because he wants to believe.
He prided himself on his ability to judge by appearances, a pardonable weakness in one who was 50, an age when an intelligent, well-to-do man starts to take himself seriously, sometimes even against his better judgement.
He who is false to himself is also the most likely to get offended. After all, it is sometimes very gratifying to feel offended… blow it out of all proportion so as to attract attention.
One can love one’s neighbour in the abstract and sometimes even at a distance, but close up almost never.
What is horrifying is that such dreadful crimes have ceased to shock us. What should horrify us is not that a certain individual commits an atrocity, but that we take these atrocities for granted.
We can be enthused by the noblest of ideals, only on condition that we don’t have to expend any effort, make any sacrifices, above all, that we needn’t pay anything. Paying is something we really resent…receiving, that’s really up our street.
The real world not only bestows rights but itself imposes enormous obligations… if we want to behave like civilised human beings… we must act rationally… not to harm our fellow man.
Additionally, I shared my enthusiasm by tweeting the shorter quotes, which sometimes led to people commenting. This helped to create a sense of community, even though I wasn’t reading it at the same time as anyone else.
Don’t expect to like the characters or identify with them:
Let’s be honest: the Karamazov family is pretty vile, as are many of the people around them. Dostoevsky seems to be playing with animal stereotypes there. The father is a greedy, selfish pig. Dmitry is a vain, flighty, spendthrift peacock. Ivan is a self-absorbed, supercilious fox. Smerdyakov is a secretive, nasty, double-crossing rat, while Grushenka and Katya are both volatile, extravagant and catty. Even my dear Alyosha is too much of an idealist, a bit of a rabbit or deer caught in the headlights and often used by those who are bolder than him. What struck me most is how operatic and over the top the whole story is, with lots of melodramatic set-pieces.
There was perhaps only one character in the whole book that I could somewhat identify with, and she is a very minor one: the mother of one of the schoolboys, Kolya Krasotkin, a single mother with a gentle but cheerful character, who does so much for her only son that he gets teased about it at school.
It always seemed to her that Kolya was aloof towards her, and on occasion she would weep hysterically and begin to reproach him for his aloofness. The boy did not like this, and the more anyone tried to elicit expressions of sentiment from him the more stubborn he became, as if on purpose. However he behaved thus not deliverately but involuntarily – such was his nature. His mother was mistaken; he loved her dearly, what he hated was ‘all this soppiness’…
These little observations, the psychological depth and understanding the author often shows for even his secondary characters, the subtleties of language or rich hidden meanings make this book feel both hugely specific and yet truly universal. What to make of that strange narrator, for instance, who seems to know far more than he really should, but is not an objective omniscient point of view at all, and even claims he cannot remember details from the trial.
Appreciate the humour:
Amid all the serious philosophical debate about the presence or absence of God, about the flaws of mankind and the absurdity of existence, I had forgotten that Dostoevsky can also be very funny. There are several scenes that have great comic potential, for example the clash between the Poles and the Russians, the misunderstanding between Dmitry and Mrs Khokhlaķova when it comes to her giving him money (and how she insists she is giving him far more than that, she is offering him the possibility to get involved in mining). But my favourite is the scene when the devil appears at Ivan’s side in the guise of a fairly polite, former serf-owner who has now become a mere hanger-on, and mocks all of his assumptions and beliefs. I could imagine him as a rather ridiculous looking Jacob Rees-Mogg, apparently all reasonable and cultured, but actually deeply vicious and immoral.
I’m a much maligned person… I’m blessed with a kind and cheerful disposition; I’ve turned my hand to vaudeville and that sort of thing. You seem determined to cast me as a grey-haired Khlestakov, but I’m destined for far greater things. I was singled out by some sort of prehistoric decree, which I’ve never been able to understand, as epitomising ‘negation’, but in fact I am genuinely kind and just not suited for negation. But no, I have to go forth and negate; without negation there would be no staire, and what’s the good of a magazine without a critics’ section… they made me the scapegoat and forced me to contribute to the critics’ section.
What torments? Oh, don’t ask, we used to have all sorts, but now we’ve gone over to moral torments, ‘pangs of conscience’ and all that rubbish. We owe that to you too, to your ‘relaxation of moral standards’. And who has benefited? Only the unscrupulous, because what are pangs of conscience to those who have no conscience?
I’m very sensitive and impressionable when it comes to artistic effects. But common sense… kept me within the proper bounds… purely out of a sense of duty and because of my social position, I felt bound to repress my virtuous impulse and to stick to nefarious deeds. All the credit for virtue goes to someone else, and I’m left with just a handful of dirty tricks.
Yes, if I were Dostoevsky’s editor in the present-day, I would advise him to start with the crime and the trial instead of the long lectures in the first half of the book, which made me abandon ship so many times. Nevertheless, I am not only glad I persevered with it, but I truly liked it this time round. There is a reason why some books are classics, why they still have so much to say even hundreds of years after they were first published. I have no idea how Shakespeare or Dostoevsky or Stendhal or Flaubert or Chekhov managed to gain such deep insights into human psychology, but their characters are unforgettable, and both modern and timeless.
One of my favourite bookish Twitter people Alok Ranjan said: ‘Sometimes just the anticipation of books to come is even more pleasing than the actual reading of them’. And in times of uncertainty, with no doubt a tough autumn and winter ahead, you take your small pleasures where you can. So I’ve been spending a few joyful hours luxuriating in planning my reading and joining in with some like-minded online friends.
There are two reading challenges in October that I cannot resist. First, Paper Pills is planning a group read of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels starting on the 1st of October, which got me looking through my shelves for other Fitzgerald books, so I’ll also be attempting her short story collection The Means of Escape and rereading The Bookshop and The Blue Flower.
Secondly, the week of 5-11 October is also the #1956Club organised by Simon Thomas and Karen aka Kaggsy. I have bought books in anticipation of that year and will be reading: Romain Gary’s Les racines du ciel, plus two books I remember fondly from my childhood Little Old Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Pryosen and The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier. If I have time after all of the above, I may also attempt Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz, but might not make it in time for the 1956 week, lucky if I squeeze it in before the end of October.
It’s been quite a few years now that November has been equivalent with German Literature Month for me, so this year will be no different. I’m in the mood for rereading Kafka’s Das Schloss (especially since my son recently read The Trial and I didn’t have my German language edition to read it in parallel with him). I was so enamoured of Marlen Haushofer that I will read another of her novels, a very short one this time Die Tapetentür (which I’ve seen translated as The Jib Door, an English expression I am unfamiliar with). I can’t stay away from Berlin, so I’ll be reading Gabriele Tergit’s Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm (Käsebier takes Berlin). I’m also planning to read a book of essays about Vienna and its very dualistic nature: Joachim Riedl’s Das Geniale. Das Gemeine (Genius and Filth/Rottenness) and another non-fiction book, a sort of memoir of studying in England by Nele Pollatscheck entitled Dear Oxbridge (it’s in German, despite the title).
Since taking the picture above, I’ve also decided to reread the book I borrowed from my university library just before lockdown in March, namely Remarque’s Nothing New on the Western Front.
Alok is once again to blame for his persuasive skills, as he’s managed to convince a group of us, including Chekhov obsessive Yelena Furman to read Sakhalin Island in December. Of course, winter seems to lend itself to lengthy Russians, so I’ll also be attempting The Brothers Karamazov (my fifth attempt, despite the fact that I am a huge Dostoevsky fan, so fingers crossed!). If I have any brain or time left over at all after these two massive adventures, I’d also like to read the memoir of living with Dostoevsky written by his wife and the memoir about Marina Tsvetaeva written by her daughter.
I also have a rather nice bilingual edition of Eugene Onegin by Pushkin from Alma Press, so I might put that into the mix as well, let’s see how it goes.
Meredith, another Twitter friend, has been organising January in Japan reading events for years now, and I always try to get at least 1-2 books in. This coming January I might focus exclusively on Japanese authors or books about Japan, as I have a lot of newly bought ones that are crying out loud for a read.I have a new translation of Dazai Osamu’s Ningen Shikkaku (A Shameful Life instead of No Longer Human) by Mark Gibeau, I’d also like to read more by Tsushima Yuko (who, coincidentally was Dazai Osamu’s daughter), the short story collection The Shooting Gallery. Inspired by Kawakami Mieko (who mentioned her name as one of the writers who most influenced her), I will be reading In the Shade of the Spring Leaves, a biography of Highuchi Ichiyo which also contains nine of her best short stories. Last but not least, I’m planning to read about Yosano Akiko (one of my favourite Japanese poets) and her lifelong obsession with The Tale of Genji, an academic study written by G. G. Rowley and published by the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. (Once upon a time, I dreamt of studying there for my Ph.D.)
Saving the best for last, I have a beautiful volume of The Passenger: Japan edition, which is something like a hybrid between a magazine and a book, focusing on writing and photography from a different country with each issue. While I’d have liked more essays by Japanese writers themselves (there are only 3 Japanese writers among the 11 long-form pieces represented here), there is nevertheless much to admire here.
Ambitious plans for the next few months, but they feel right after a month or so of aimless meandering in my reading. Let’s just hope the weather, i.e. news, outside isn’t too frightful!